Background of the Study
The experiences of black women in the U.S. have challenged feminist scholarship to rethink the relationship between race and gender for everyone. Since the middle of the 20th century, women’s studies scholars have increasingly acknowledged that differences among women arise from inequalities of power and privilege. For African American women, gender is a part of a larger pattern of unequal social relations; how gender is experienced depends with how it intersects with other inequalities (Hooks 8).
What was the position of black women in U.S. society and the reasons why the black women population did not consider themselves as a part of the ongoing feminist movements (in 20th century)? (Hooks 10).
From the research question, I intend to explore the gender ideology of the Black Power Movement, the participation of women, the effect of the fight against racism together with an increased level of race consciousness on gender awareness, and the cultural changes inspired by black power.
Although women’s activism throughout America’s history is evidence of emerging feminisms, I intend to focus my research on the emergence of radical feminism in which black women question not only their oppression in society but also the very nature of the gender hierarchy and the hegemonic gender system (Hooks 11). This paper is meant to open debate on how women viewed the much-hyped feminist movement.
Significance of the Study
I have found the work of Bell Hooks (15) useful in understanding the construction of hegemonic gender orders with hegemonic versions of masculinity and femininity. Hegemonic gender constructs perpetuate the idea that gender roles are somehow natural and therefore immutable.
They are developed in such a way to maintain control of and appeal across class and race by displaying essential ingredients to all groups. Until men and women challenge these hegemonic structures, which are continuously being reinforced by the media and other forces and institutions, gender equality cannot fully evolve.
Some women activists in the Black Power movement, while fighting against racism and class discrimination, began to question their own oppression but did not go to challenge these structures. An examination of the gender in the Black Power movement and the subsequent development of a feminist movement make a critical contribution to the study of gender in America. There are important similarities between the experiences of women in the Black Power movement in the U.S. including the construction of black masculinity (Hooks 20).
Theoretical Approach and Methods
The Black Feminist movement emerged as a response to the Black Liberation movement and the Women’s Movement. During this period, the term “black” was often used to refer to black men while “woman” was used to refer to white women. As a result, this led to the neglect of the existence of black women and their needs.
The main goal of the movement was to come up with a hypothesis that could deal with the way race, gender, and class were interlinked in their lives and to take measures that could halt sexist and classist discrimination. There have been arguments that the Black Feminist movement fought for the freedom of everyone in the society since it sought to eliminate racism, sexism and class subjugation.
The Feminist Theory is one of the theories that emerged as a result of this movement. There has been known to exist a special bond between Black Feminists and post-colonial feminists since both fought for the recognition of both the men in their own society and the Western feminists. (Hooks 35).
No one-research study identified examines how Black women addressed the barriers attributed to race, gender, and social class during the black feminist movement. This literature review will provide insight about the political identity of Black women through the lens of Black feminist thought.
This section will begin with an overview of feminist theory to offer a context and visualize the origin of Black feminist thought. The literature review will also connect issues of race, class, and gender with the critical variables of self-determination and self-definition as fundamental components of Black feminist thought. To embrace the uniqueness of Black feminist thought, the study will define and describe the outsider-within phenomenon that has plagued Black women since their enslavement.
The purpose of this section of the literature review is to offer a comprehensive understanding of standpoint theory. One should have a firm grasp of this theory‘s tenets to have the proper foundation to understand Black feminist thought theory. There exists multiple related and yet distinct feminist standpoint theories. They are grounded in one original idea, which is that knowledge is socially located and arises in social positions that are structured by power relations (Hallstein 32).
Standpoint theorists (McClish & Bacon 27) asserted that there are two reasons an epistemology generated from an oppressed group, such as women, is more valid than the knowledge of those in dominant positions. The first reason insists that the oppressed must understand the ideology of those in power to survive, and the second reason asserts that those of subjugated groups offer fuller insight into the social order since they possess no desire to maintain the status quo.
In one of the central tenets associated with standpoint theory, Orbe (230) asserted that research must begin from a person‘s concrete lived experiences and emphasize the need to be aware of a specific societal position. Orbe also noted that research and knowledge production about women must begin from women’s lives and that their vision is not necessarily truthful.
Therefore, no one standpoint can serve to represent the cognitive behavior, belief, or attitudes of all women due to the existence of multiple differences among women. With a true understanding of standpoint theory, one may now explore the specifics of Black feminist thought.
Theory grounds how researchers identify, name, interpret, and write about individual and collective experiences. It can be challenging to find and apply theoretical constructs that are appropriate for explaining and understanding the experiences of Black women. To try to interpret the experience in a fair and just manner, one must have the proper theoretical lens.
Thus, it is important to identify a theory that reflects Black women‘s political and social positions and that of others with whom they interact in the world. Black feminists (McClish & Bacon 30) argue that Black women‘s perspectives are grounded in their unique experiences.
Feminist activists and historical scholars apply the ?wave model to describe the women’s movement in the United States; however, this model obscures the historical role of race (Springer 1059) as part of the movement. Black feminism came into being during the subsequent wave of the women’s movement that began towards the end of the 1960’s. (Smith 56).
While some traditional theories provide frameworks that are adaptable enough to conform to any group’s development, Black feminist thought is more specific in its integration, validation, and centering of Black women‘s unique realities, perceptions, and experiences (Collins 14).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s liberation and Black power movements (Cole & Stewart 130) aimed to redefine the roles and broaden the privileges of historically disadvantaged groups. These movements worked to accomplish these ends through the redefinition of the constituent groups’ identities and political consciousness. In 1973, the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was formed (Smith 60). In 1974, a group of Black women known as The Combahee River Collective, gathered in Boston, Massachusetts (Smith 62).
The name Combahee River came from a military action in South Carolina led by Harriet Tubman. During this gallant incident, 750 slaves were set free during a military organization that was designed and executed by a woman. Members of these groups have been involved in defining and clarifying the political identity of Black women and were committed to struggling against racial, sexual, and class oppression.
The focal point on their individual subjugation is encompassed in the concept of personality politics (Smith 63). Identity politics support the notion that the most profound and radical politics stem from one‘s own identity and not one that works toward ending someone else‘s oppression.
Political identity (Cole & Stewart 135) describes a pattern of beliefs related to the social and structural relationships that connect the individual to social groups. It asserts that human existence is interconnected and that systemic obstacles rather than individual shortcomings limit disadvantaged groups. It proposes that the political realm is personally relevant and meaningful, and that collective actions are the best responses to social problems.
Black feminists distinguish their struggle from that of White feminists, as the struggle of Black feminists is both anti-racist and anti-sexist (Smith 64).
White feminists do not claim as a facet of their struggle the element of race. Another distinction (Smith 65) is the feelings of solidarity that Black feminists have toward progressive Black men, which differ from the fractionalization that White women who are separatists have toward White men. To demonstrate solidarity with Black men, the vision of Black feminism embraces the unified struggle to diminish the forces of racism, class separation, and sexism.
Black Women’s Understanding of Race, Class and Gender
Chandra Talpade Mohanty (50) asserted that from the perspective of some of the most disenfranchised communities of women in the world, it is likely to envision a just and democratic society capable of treating all its citizens fairly.
Conversely, she stated that if we begin our analysis from, and limit it to, the space of privileged communities, our vision of justice is more likely to be exclusionary because privilege nurtures blindness to those without the same privileges. A Black feminist framework takes into account the intersectional dynamics of race, class, and gender (Coker 654).
While this framework provides a platform to examine and better comprehend the commonalities that exist between Black women, it also recognizes differences among Black women. A review of the extensive work of Dr. Patricia Hill Collins (227) served as a primary source to offer a conceptual framework for comprehending Black feminist thought.
Working jointly and in systematic fashion, the discriminations of racism, sexism, and, in many cases, class inequality remain pervasive in the personal and professional lives of many Black women. Patricia Collins‘s (18) conceptual framework of Black feminist thought and its themes rendered an insightful vantage point into the experiences of all Black women.
Black feminist ideas are built in the principle that black women, as an assembly, possess definite themes (Collins 19). The ideology of Black feminist thought declares that visibility of Black women asserts self-determination and self-definition as essential, challenges the interlocking nature of oppression, and presumes an image of Black women as powerful and independent subjects (Collins 20).
A self-determined person is one who has the power to decide one’s own destiny just as a self-realized person has the power to name one’s own reality (Collins 21). This research indicates that to foster and facilitate a personal or professional relationship with a Black woman, a balance of, respect for, or at minimum, a healthy recognition of these themes needs to exist.
The social construction of black womanhood
The-outsider-within syndrome is a common and critical factor that unites the experience of U.S. Black women in the labor market. The outsider-within syndrome is a social condition where Black women appeared to belong to a group but were not accepted as an equal.
Collins (72) outlined the origin of the syndrome. Prior to World War II, the two categorical areas of employment for U.S. Black women were domestic and agricultural work. Development and transference of both skill sets are a direct result of Black women’s enslavement in this country.
As domestic employees, Black women performed duties that allowed them to form nurturing ties with White children and often with the employers themselves. Hallstein (38) also noted that women occupy a position inside and outside of the dominant culture. The outsider-within syndrome is also described as bifurcated in that a woman’s perception of her structural position allows her to see her own socially located knowledge and that of the dominant culture and its feminine conception.
The Five Distinguishing Features of Black Feminist Thought
The effects of institutional racism are complicated by racial segregation and accompanying discriminatory practices designed to deny equitable treatment to Blacks. The general purpose of Black feminist thought (Collins 76) is to resist the practices and ideology generated by oppression. For Black women (Collins 77), the impact of institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination based on class remain observable and tangible.
The common experiences generated by these existing conditions, stated Collins (78), mean that Black women live in a different world than those who are not Black and women. These conditions amplify the need for a conceptual framework that distinguishes Black feminist thought from other feminist schools of thought.
Experience and consciousness. The first feature recognizes interdependence between experience (Collins 78) and consciousness. The link between what one does and what one thinks characterizes the Black women’s experience as a group. Collins (78) emphasized that the deficiency of political activism on the part of the subjugated group evolves from their flawed consciousness of their own subjugation. There are two possible interpretations (Collins 79) of the oppressed group‘s consciousness if Black women‘s collective wisdom is not present.
This can be interpreted to mean that subordinate groups have a firm identification with the power group thus depriving them of a valid independent analysis of their own subjugation. The second interpretation is that the oppressed group is less human than the powerful group. Both interpretations, according to Collins (79), sees the lack of activism by Black women or any oppressed group as a sign of the group‘s inferiority or a flawed consciousness of subordination.
The legacy of struggle. The second feature is the recognized link between Black women‘s oppression and the legacy of struggle. The legacy of struggle, according to Collins (79), referred to Black women‘s struggle to exist in conflicting worlds: (1) that of the White, privileged, and oppressive; and (2) that of the Black, exploited and simultaneously oppressed. Acknowledging that this dilemma exists, (Collins 79) does not confirm that every Black woman recognizes or embraces its existence.
Dialogic relationship. The third feature of Black feminist thought is that there exists a dialogic (Collins 79) relationship that characterizes Black women‘s experiences and group knowledge.
This feature insinuates that variations of thought may accompany alterations in the course of action thus lead to the production of modified experiences that uphold altered individual or group perception. Within the context of this feature, Collins introduced the notion of rearticulation, which occurs when Black women receive a different view of themselves and the world.
This rearticulated consciousness strives to empower Black women and promote resistance (Collins 80). Williams et al (181) identified the ?use of dialogue as a Black feminist thought theme. This too suggests that oppressed groups use dialogues to establish empowered bonds and relationships.
Black women intellectuals. The fourth distinguishing feature claims Black women intellectuals (Collins 81) as the coalition-building group of Black feminist thought. Collins continues to emphasize that a Black woman intellectual can reside within and outside of the academic arena.
The experience of the Black woman affords her the right and ability to provide a vision of Black womanhood that is unavailable to members of other groups. According to Collins, the intellectual must promote and push the themes of self-determination, self-definition, and group autonomy. The concepts of self-determination and self-definition will serve as variables of interest and exploration for the developmental networks of Black women.
Significance of Change. The significance of change symbolizes the last distinctive facet of Black feminist thought. Collins (81) asserted the changing social conditions experienced by Black women generate a need for constant Black feminist analyses of shared differences that characterize Black womanhood.
Collins used the aforementioned concept of ?outsider-within syndrome as an example. She acknowledged that in today‘s world of work, far fewer Black women are domestic employees, but Collins submits this image has experienced a modern transformation. Black women still hold the lion’s share of contemporary emotional nurturing, lower tier administrative, and ?cleaning up after people positions.
The Constraining Walls of Social Location
An image that helps convey how the Feminist Theory limits opportunity and represents the relationship between structure and culture is found in Gloria Naylor’s novel The Women of Brewster Place. The characters in this story live on a dead-end street that has been closed off by a brick wall. The wall separates Brewster Place from the rest of the community.
It shuts out light to apartments, it creates a dark and unprotected area where destructive activities occur, and its presence suggests that there is only one way out. The wall on Brewster place is a powerful symbol of the ways racial oppression, sexual exploitation, and class domination constrain the life chances and choices of the women who live there.
For black-American women, the social structures that are identified and discussed in this book are similar to the wall; they create barriers, limit opportunities, and constrain choices. At the conclusion of The Women of Brewster Place, the wall at the end of the street becomes the focus of collective social action. In a final act of defiance and rage, the residents of the street tear the wall down.
The wall and the responses and reaction of the residents to it provide a useful device for illustrating the relationship of social structure to human choice and action. Within the “walls” constructed by race, class, and gender oppression, black women create lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. Their lives are an active outgrowth of the continuous interplay between their cultural background, their personal abilities, and their struggles with the constraints of social structure (Naylor 2-120).
Outcome Literature Review
While research that examines the reasons why the black women population did not consider themselves as a part of the ongoing feminist movements from the perspective of Black women is scarce, it is my hope that this study will encourage others to continue the scholarship. Although gender as a category of consciousness was not developed during the Feminist movement, looking back at the movement with a gendered analysis based on the feminist theory does give some important insights that may not have been obvious at the time.
The Black Power Movement clearly demonstrated the resilience of the gender system. The language of the movement is particularly interesting. Black Power advocates used a very masculine language that focused almost exclusively on the Black Man. Even if Black Power leaders felt the need to focus on recruiting men, it is interesting why they did so in gendered language. They equated the lack of power with the denial of manhood, thus tying masculinity to power.
The movement derived its concept of manhood directly from the model of hegemonic masculinity of the ruling class, the same elite whom advocates of Black Power challenged, yet they never seriously questioned the structure of masculinity, nor the oppression of women (Hooks 52).
Because power, sexuality, and manhood were so intrinsically linked, it was not surprising that the Black Power movement in the United States should place a new emphasis on the black male body. At the same time that the ‘Black is Beautiful’ slogan provided a necessary counter to Western ideals of beauty, this new emphasis on blackness reasserted the power, strength and sexuality of the black body, and of the black male body in particular.
This focus tended to assert male sexuality and power, while exploiting black female sexuality. The hyper-masculine sexualized male body of the African man thus played on the white male fears that arose from the mythical construction of black male sexuality–a side effect of British imperialism and the colonizing agenda.
Cultural critic Bell Hooks (84) points out that the black male body has also been “feminized” by white men in order to assuage that fear, so that, like all women, black men were seen as more body than mind and more instinctive than logical. The hyper-masculine image of Black Power served in part to counteract this “feminization.”
For my future research, I intend to follow the following outline in order to fully answer my research question:
Sexism and the black female slave experience
The imperialism of patriarchy
Racism and feminism: The issue of accountability
Black women and feminism
The chapter on racism and feminism and black women and feminism are extremely important to me since they will help me to reflect on my research process and outcome.
Plan of Study